September 21, 2021

Chicago News Cooperative: ComEd’s Smart Grid Begins With a Promise for the Future

Arguments raged over legislation, approved last year over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto, that authorizes ComEd’s 10-year investment in the grid. ComEd says that the project will ultimately save customers more than it costs them. Mr. Quinn said he felt the legislation allowed power companies to circumvent a century-old process of setting rates, and thereby weaken oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Often lost amid the disagreements, however, is the question of how the grid should work and whether it will improve how consumers use electricity. The legislation places Illinois and ComEd squarely in the evolving national movement toward a smart grid.

The Oak Park substation is a pilot project approved in 2009 and is meant to test new technology and the savings it can generate. As ComEd’s first “intelligent” substation, No. 505 is outfitted with scores of state-of-the-art electronic sensors that monitor the flow of electricity. The sensors can analyze up to 1,500 pieces of information every two seconds and alert ComEd managers when — or even before — a problem happens.

Microprocessors can almost instantly switch a troubled line to an alternative power source and minimize outages, said Rich Gordus Jr., a smart grid manager at ComEd.

Val Jensen, a vice president at ComEd, said the current grid was “relatively dumb, meaning that we put power into the grid at the plant and then it flows according to the law of physics through all of those wires.”

The system, he said, “can’t tell when a power line goes down, when you lose power at your house, when a substation is overloaded or overheated.” ComEd investigates outages only after customers call to complain.

Smart-grid technology, Mr. Jensen said, can tell operators whether a fan has malfunctioned, if the system is losing coolants or why a substation is overheating. “Otherwise,” he said, “the only way we could tell is if we sent a person out there to check and then went in and started looking at a bunch of gauges.”

The electric grid extends from the power plant to the meter on individual houses. Bill Kautz, a smart grid expert and petroleum marketing manager at Tellabs, a telecommunications company in Naperville, said upgrading the system into a smart grid typically involved two elements.

The first, he said, is updating transformers, substations and transmission lines. “Anything with power being carried over some form of copper cables degrades over time. The insulators degrade over time so upgrading them is one of the key factors in this.”

Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd’s chief executive officer, estimated that about half of the $2.6 billion cost of the project involved these upgrades. Officials say the upgrades will make the system more efficient and reliable.

Mr. Kautz said the second element involves installation of communication systems — technology added to the upgraded system that can alert a network control center of problems over fiber optic cables. Ms. Pramaggiore estimated the communication improvements would cost $1.3 billion.

ComEd says that the bill approved last year contains a rate-setting process that protects consumers. The legislation, which ComEd says will initially add about $3 a month to the average utility bill, imposes financial penalties on the company if it fails to deliver on promised savings in the future.

Smart grid advocates say they hope to achieve savings by giving consumers the ability to buy more power at off-peak hours, when electricity costs ComEd less and therefore costs its customers less. Skeptics say there is not much evidence that consumers will take advantage of the technology.

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